Reflections on a Moving Project

During a recent retreat, Agency by Design researchers used chart paper and Post-it notes to synthesize their data and formulate new guiding questions.

During a recent retreat, Agency by Design researchers used chart paper and Post-it notes to synthesize their data and formulate new guiding questions.

Several weeks ago, our core research team (myself, Shari, Jess, Edward, and Raquel) and our west coast liaison (Wendy) met for a two-day work retreat. We came with easels, markers, laptops, and a desire to reflect on year one of the Agency by Design project, assess and discuss our evolving research questions, and look forward to the work ahead.

Agency by Design researchers making sense of data and refining ideas.

Agency by Design researchers making sense of data and refining ideas.

Perhaps embodying our theme of “what does it mean to think like a designer?” our team has been working with an ethos of try, test, refine, try again. In other words, this has been an incredibly emergent project. Though our core interest—exploring cognitive and dispositional thinking in the worlds of design and making—has remained, we are continually refining our questions. And so, it seems the right time to share our current understandings about the project—or, in the spirit of how we work here at Project Zero, to make our thinking visible and accessible.

For the past year we have been working closely with colleagues in the Temescal region of Oakland, California. Considering questions such as, “if and how are young people sensitive to design?” and “can a sensitivity to design be cultivated or nurtured?” we have been engaging teachers and students with design/making- and observation-based activities.

In response to a prompt about how an object functions within a system, a 12th grader demonstrates an understanding of the complex interrelation of systems, from interpersonal to homework to organizational.

In response to a prompt about how an object functions within a system, a 12th grader demonstrates an understanding of the complex interrelation of systems, from interpersonal to homework to organizational.

We have also been exploring together the use of activities that encourage awareness of the design dimension of objects and systems, as well as exercises that help students develop the capacity to be agents of change with regard to design—to empower young people to see that they have a right to effect the designed aspect of their world—whether that be the design of a chair or the design of a health care system.

As we enter year two of our research project, we are excited to be expanding our empirical work with several more schools in Oakland, to continue developing ideas and a body of knowledge around design and maker thinking with our colleagues in Temescal, and to push our questioning into the theoretical world of academic and scholarly research. And while our retreat helped reaffirm our initial goal of strengthening students’ cognitive development around design and making, it also allowed us to frame guiding questions for the road ahead:

  1. In the context of design and making experiences, what are the signs of thinking and learning?
  2. What characteristics are typical of people who engage in design and making experiences?
  3. In the context of design and making experiences, what is agency and how can it be fostered?

Please stay tuned.

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About Jen Ryan

Jennifer Oxman Ryan is a project manager and researcher at Project Zero, located at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research interests include the role of the arts in community development, arts education, school/community partnerships, and young people’s engagement with digital media. She is currently focused on Agency by Design, an initiative exploring the intersection of the maker movement, design thinking, and Project Zero frameworks. She joined Project Zero in 2006, and has worked on various research projects, including: Qualities of Quality: Excellence in Arts Education and How to Achieve It, and the Trust and Trustworthiness and GoodPlay strands of the GoodWork™Project. She lives in Maine, where she is involved in arts education policy and advocacy. Since 1999 she has been active on the Maine Arts Commission, where she is currently a commission member and serves on the education committee.

One thought on “Reflections on a Moving Project

  1. I’m just ending the school year and thinking about what PZ and Design Me (AbD) has offered my students and me. In a few words, it’s put some order to the chaos! My Tinkering Table/Tub is fair game all year long as students (collectively) build a replica of themselves as an average sixth grader, make a scale model of their own dream bedrooms, create “mathy art” cards to publish, or when they grab for a Chrome Book to create a going away animation for their kindergarten buddies. This is all good, all very in line with what my progressive school has been doing for ever- we call it adhering to “Constructivist” principles. But, beyond rubrics, I’m very curious to label? name? make explicit? the thinking that comes with these projects. What labels are we using? And, to note that not all students follow the same learning path! With some, there’s struggle. How do they get through that? For instance, I notice some kids “borrowing” ideas from others- almost bartering their intellectual property. I notice others being inspired by what materials are in front of them while others may anguish over not being able to replicate what’s in their imagination. Can (should) I challenge these types of creators to be more flexible with fewer materials? Should I challenge the materials kids to develop a more detailed conceptual design before diving in? Does the conceptual designing need to include digital planning or pencil and paper drawings (or both)? So, you can see that Project Zero has turned me into one of them… a question asker! I’m looking forward to the next steps in our work together! Jenny

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